We, the American citizenry, are a thankful lot. Our calendar is dotted with days when we express our gratitude to various individuals and entities. On Veterans Day, we thank the members of the Armed Forces for their dedicated service. On Memorial Day, we show our gratitude to those courageous men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending our liberties and democratic lifestyle. On Labor Day, we express our appreciation to the industrious American workforce, the people who keep the wheels of our economy turning. On other selected days, we pause to thank different historic individuals who have made valuable contributions to our nation.
As Jews, we always look to the Torah for a deeper perspective. What light does the Torah shed on the wonderful trait of thankfulness?
And then there is Thanksgiving. The day when we thank G‑d for enabling all the above—and for all else He does for us.
There is no doubt that this great country’s historically unprecedented success and prosperity is due to the fact that its Founding Fathers recognized that there is a Supreme Being who provides and cares for every creature. They understood that since G‑d sustains and gives life to every being, it follows that every being has certain “unalienable rights” upon which no government can impinge.
These strong morals upon which our republic was founded express themselves to this day in American life. Looking at the dollar bill and seeing “In God We Trust” is a reassurance that, as a people, we still recognize and acknowledge the Source of all our achievements.
As Jewish citizens of this land, we always look to the Torah for a deeper perspective and additional insight. What light does the Torah shed on the wonderful trait of thankfulness?
Actually, there is one particular mitzvah which is completely devoted to expressing gratitude—the mitzvah of bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26:1–12). During the Temple era, every farmer was commanded to bring to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem the first fruits which ripened in his orchard. There he would recite a passage thanking G‑d for the Land and its bountiful harvest, and the fruits were given to the kohanim (priests). The Midrash extols the great virtue of this mitzvah, going so far as to say that the Land of Israel was given to the Jews as a reward for the mitzvah of bikkurim they would observe after entering the Land!
While the importance of expressing deserved gratitude is self-understood, it is difficult to comprehend the special significance of bikkurim. Isn’t the Jewish day jam-packed with “thank you”s? The first words we utter when waking in the morning express our thanks to G‑d for returning our souls to our bodies. Thrice daily during the course of prayer, we thank G‑d for everything imaginable. Before and after eating, we thank G‑d for the food. There is even a blessing recited upon exiting the restroom, thanking G‑d for normal bodily function!
With all the thanking which occurs on a daily basis, why the need for a specific mitzvah to emphasize the point? And why the great reward for this particular form of expressing thanks?
The Rebbe points out one obvious difference between bikkurim and all the other ways we thank G‑d: bikkurim involves more than just words—it requires a commitment; the gratitude must express itself in deeds. Bikkurim implies that our thankfulness to G‑d cannot remain in the realm of emotions, thoughts, or even speech, but must also move us to action.
While the mitzvah of bikkurim in its plainest sense is not practicable today, its lesson is timeless. Our gratitude to G‑d must express itself in the actions of our daily life. Giving back the “first of our fruit,” the choicest share of the crop, is the only appropriate way to thank G‑d for giving us all our fruit.